Political Hay

Birmingham Sewer Vanity Follies

Politicians leave a bad stench not only in Washington.

By 1.5.10

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Elected in 2007, Larry Langford had to step down as mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, but not by his choice. A Tuscaloosa jury convicted Langford in October of all 60 counts of bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and tax evasion in federal court when he was president of the Jefferson County Commission.

Langford was undone by vanity. He charged more clothes than he could pay at many of the finest stores in the Birmingham area. Montgomery investment banker William Blount and lobbyist Albert LaPierre fixed this and a Langford tax debt, paying $235,000 in all. In return, Blount reaped $7.1 million in Jefferson County bond business related to the county's sewer consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This included fees paid to Blount for bonds placed through Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs.

In a deal to testify against Langford, Blount and LaPierre pled guilty to two counts each. Blount is going to prison for 52 months and paying a fine of $1 million. LaPierre will serve 48 months and pay a fine of $372,000. Attorneys for Langford tried unsuccessfully to portray him as an innocent dupe of Blount and LaPierre.

If Jefferson County had only issued capital bonds for the sewer project, it would have been expensive but understandable. However, Jefferson County invested in derivatives such as interest rate swaps with predictable results; the county's bond rate fell and sewage rates soared. Before the Langford conviction, eight other figures in the Jefferson County sewer case were convicted of giving or taking bribes. Langford topped them all.

A special election January 19 to elect a successor to Langford has been narrowed to two. Ivy League attorney Patrick Cooper, who lost to Langford in 2007, is facing longtime City Councilman William Bell. Bell was acting Birmingham Mayor in 1999. He has lost twice before, including finishing fourth in 2007.

City finances are ailing, not least because city operating funds are used to paper over capital funding shortfalls, both candidates agree. It is obvious that the city is at least $32 million in the red because of reliance on sales tax revenue and a peculiar tax levied against employees, both of which are recession-prone. The difference is that Bell wants to build a domed stadium and Cooper wants a mass transit system that works better than Birmingham's current dysfunctional system.

Both Bell and Cooper are black, but Cooper's complexion is less dark. Bell has accused Cooper of being a slave-trader from Mobile and doing the bidding of predominately white communities over the mountains from Birmingham. It is a calculated risk to try to paint Cooper as not being black enough and not being from Birmingham. So far, Cooper leads with young people and the white sections of Birmingham.

Still free before he serves life in prison, Langford has endorsed Bell, which some wags have called the kiss of death. Ironically, some of the places where Langford shopped for clothes are in predominately white communities over the mountains. 

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About the Author

Mark G. Michaelsen writes frequently about public affairs.